Did you know that A grade squash players move to respond to their opponent’s shot before the ball is struck, while D grade players do not initiate movement until after it has been hit?
We can define squash anticipation as the ability to determine where the opponent will send the squash ball prior to the ball being struck. Useful concepts when devising a squash coaching plan to train anticipation are technical anticipation, tactical anticipation and partial anticipation (terms I leaned in Tennis Canada workshops with then Davis Cup coach Louis Cayer).
Technical Anticipation: Relying on pre-impact body and racquet cues. In a series of ingenious studies, Abernethy (from Oz!) and colleagues showed that “expert” racquet sport players rely mostly on upper arm and racquet cues for hints.
Tactical Anticipation: When you get an early start to the ball because your opponent always drops the loose ball in the mid-court, you are relying on tactical anticipation – anticipating based on your opponent’s previous choices, strategy or game plan.
Partial Anticipation: This type of anticipation is based on the knowledge of what your opponent cannot do when the opponent has several choices. For example if you have glued a straight length drive to the side wall, you can cheat over towards that side because your opponent is unlikely to hit a hard cross-court drive past you – technically they are probably limited to a straight drive, lob or drop. At a full lunging stretch to the front most players with a proper squash grip, cannot hit a hard, straight drive from that position, so we can move up and look for a cross-court drop, drive or flick.
There are systematic, progressive ways to coach squash anticipation:
Method 1: Always teach the anticipation cues associated with with each particular shot’s shot-cycle (e.g., watch-move-hit-recover-watch);
Method 2: If you use a Zone Model of Tactics to regulate your technical-tactical squash coaching, identify and teach the different anticipatory cues associated with the different tactical situations in each zone (e.g., Opponent is on defence in front right – what are their possible options? Train the anticipation and response for each of these options. Teach your players what to look for.).
Method 3: Develop a hierarchy (list) of situations where anticipation has a major role or payoff, and work your way through the list with your players – developing a little practice around each situation. Your list can start with the most common or easiest situations (e.g., if a player turns extra in playing a difficult ball off the backwall they are probably going to boast) or the most important (at the pro level only 5% of shots under pressure from the front right will be straight drives). This hierarchy could also be based on a player’s stage in a sports LTAD (i.e., at this stage we train these situations).
One of the best ways to develop squash players with great anticipation of course, is to ensure that they grow up and train in an environment with frequent exposure in competition and practice to a variety of players and styles – especially attacking, deceptive styles of play (did I say Egyptian?) where developing anticipation is of prime importance. This is great both for the young player and squash coach since anticipation can be learned mostly automatically though observation and trial and error, without having to resort to systematic teaching progressions (if the players are athletic and talented).
In developing anticipation skills with older players past the Golden Age of learning, it is important that the squash coach avoid excessive closed drilling and practice – that is every game or drill should involve choices and decisions – avoid mindless boast and drive and length drills except for a few minutes of warm-up.
Even the squash world’s best anticipaters sometimes get fooled – but that is a topic for another article: